Books: A mysterious picture that changes lives
Fiction: The Boy Between, Susan Stairs, Hachette Ireland, tpbk, £12.99
'I've always known that something was missing. For as long as I can remember, Mam's never been there." So says Orla, one of the key characters in Susan Stairs's compelling second novel, The Boy Between. When she was a child, summers with her mother were magical, full of happy memories. But as August would draw to a close, her mother's moods would darken and her daughter could no longer reach her.
Stairs's debut, The Story Of Before, about an 11-year-old Dublin girl, garnered many positive reviews. It has been compared to The Lovely Bones, the acclaimed novel by Alice Sebold, and was described in these pages as moving and evocative.
But Stairs has admitted how several months and 20,000 words into the gestation of her second novel, she had to change direction entirely and ditch everything she'd written after the first chapter.
It may have been a hard decision to make, but it certainly seems to have been the right one. With The Boy Between, Stairs has created an absorbing and assured tale, as she demonstrates the impossibility of escaping our past.
Throughout the novel, she switches perspective between 14-year-old Tim and Orla, a twenty-something solicitor.
In the summer of 1983, Tim travels on the ferry from Holyhead to spend his summer holiday with his relatives in the village of Lissenmore. The events of those fateful weeks would change his life forever, and have a lasting impact on his aunt Mags and uncle PJ.
Tim becomes entranced with a neighbouring teenage girl, Maeve Mooney, whose father, Lar, has deserted his wife, Tess, and their children. Tim becomes convinced that Mags knows more about Lar's disappearance than she is saying. But Maeve knows something about Tim, something she shouldn't.
Twenty-seven years later, bad weather prevents Orla, the only child of Mags and PJ, from getting home to Lissenmore for Christmas, precipitating a crisis for her fragile mother and prompting her father to take decisive action.
Mags has a box of keepsakes which she hides in a wardrobe. It contains letters, postcards and other mementoes relating to the events of the summer before her daughter was born. From it, PJ removes a photograph of himself and his wife, standing on either side of a teenage boy with striking white blonde curls. He gives it to his daughter one night without any explanation.
Almost immediately PJ regrets his action, and refuses to discuss the photograph with Orla, but his daughter is intrigued by the mystery and sets out to discover the secret behind it.
In her first novel, Stairs, who lives in Dublin with her family, captured the landscape of her home town in the seventies. With this latest tale, she has demonstrated that she can conjure up the atmosphere of eighties rural Ireland just as effectively, as well as effortlessly inhabiting the voices of a teenage boy and a 27-year-old lawyer. The Boy Between is a powerful, moving story that stays with the reader longer after the last page has been read.
Stairs has most assuredly confirmed her place within the voices of quality Irish fiction.